There’s something funny that happens when you are a student in one place and then a working person in another: the memories of time in school get mixed up with the memories of the place itself. Although this is clearly just how memory works — we remember things in the context in which they occurred — I think it’s central to some of the anxieties of expat life.
This summer my spouse and I shipped over all of our belongings from storage in the US to our new flat in Edinburgh. Among these items were several boxes of old papers and folders from my undergraduate and graduate work. Just this week I finally got around to sorting them into better-managed piles in my office. As I was doing so, I came across several spiral notebooks, as well as some three ring binders. The notebooks were three hole punched, so I decided to put them in the binders for storage. As I felt the click of the binder rings opening, I got a wave of nostalgia, and the feeling that I hadn’t felt that particular sensation in years. It was the sensation that the action itself was old-fashioned or outdated. But at the same time I had the conscious thought that three ring binders are just American, and not British, and that’s why I hadn’t seen or felt one in awhile. (The only hole punchers I’ve ever seen in the UK are two hole punchers. Three hole punchers are used with Letter-sized paper, and of course the UK uses A4 paper.) But then I wondered: do Americans still use three ring binders? Maybe everyone’s now living in a paperless society, and my feeling of nostalgia is indeed warranted! The point is, sitting here in my Edinburgh office, I can’t know the answer.
This got me wondering if I’m actually going around getting the two (“outdated” and “American”) confused more often than I know. I started thinking about all the different sensations of a place that become embedded in our memories, like how when I think of being “back in college” I can almost feel the heat of Tucson on my skin. But while I might be nostalgic for the oven-baked feeling (especially given the weather we’ve had this summer in the UK), that quality of Tucson weather is not going to change: Tucson is and will continue to be hot in the summer. With micro-aspects of human culture, like three ring binders, it’s a different scenario. While I’m in the UK I can’t know what little, seemingly insignificant objects are still being used in the US, and which ones are going out of use. If those little objects never existed in the UK in the first place, then when I see them again and get a wave of nostalgia I have no way of knowing if other Americans would agree with that feeling or if it’s my own expat nostalgia to bear. Of course, this is surely more likely to happen with physical objects and tactile sensations than it is with those things that are easily accessed via the internet, like music and news. Luckily for me, it’s probably less likely to happen with forms of language use… Or so I hope!